Alan Wallace on scientific dogmatism and materialism

Alan Wallace, a Buddhist and writer on consciousness and meditation, talks about what he sees as the dogmatism and idolatry of the current, materialistic scientific paradigm.

While I have some questions about materialism that no one has been able to answer, I don’t agree that the focus materialism is a form of idolatry. It’s just the framework into which all the other empirical data best fits. If another model came along that fit the data better, or data came along that did not fit the model, the prevailing paradigm would change. It would change slowly I’m sure, because paradigms do, but it would change. It’s a bit unfair to talk about current scientific models as if they are not works in progress — even if they slow, perhaps too slow, to change.

Since there’s a finite amount of time and money that can be invested into consciousness research, it makes more sense to start your investigations from the standpoint of the most supported, the most accepted and the most validated paradigm, which is the material model. So you start from here, you make assumptions from here and then test them. A difficult question then becomes, at what point do you know that you’ve exhausted all the avenues of this model, and should start looking to others?

Wallace says that a better way to study consciousness is to use our immediate experience, through our own observations, because this is a direct experience of consciousness, unlike second-hand self-report or brain imaging data. But I don’t see how this can answer the fundamental question – whether consciouness emerges from matter, as the materialistic view proposes, or whether matter emerges from consciousness, as the Buddhist and other views propose. How would introspection answer that?

Observing the mind might well let you understand it, it might show you, as Wallace describes, this blissful second “layer” of consciousness, which Wallace claims does not arise from matter. How is it possible to know this from introspection? If you answer “You have to experience it to know,” then that’s an argument to authority (to people who have already experienced it) and I won’t be convinced by that, but at the very least it’s testable and a million times better than “you must have faith.” That it takes years and years of meditation to test this hypothesis is somewhat inconvenient, but at least its falsifiable.

But let’s say I do experience it. How do I know it does not arise from matter? How can introspection separate something that does not arise from matter and never did, from something that does but has changed through years of mental training?

One thought on “Alan Wallace on scientific dogmatism and materialism

  1. Alan Wallace is a rather complex and contradictory figure among the heavy hitters of modern Buddhism. I’m not a materialist myself, but judging by the books, articles, and many talks of his that I have read or watched I think Wallace’s stance against materialism is almost fanatical. It’s certainly distracting when he is giving a talk about mental peace and then spends five or ten minutes sniping at materialists and the strictly neurological model of the mind, railing against SSRIs or making nonsensical claims about how you can’t change behaviour by ‘interjecting things into the brain’ because ‘neurons aren’t meaningful.’ What?

    If I were allowed to speculate wildly, I think part of Wallace’s resistance to materialism stems from a discomfort with the sudden and massive surge of knowledge in neuroscience in the last 20 years. Wallace is an avid supporter of integrating science and spirituality, but he is still heavily ensconced in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition he has spent his entire adult life propagating. It may be disconcerting for him to see how neuroscience could steal the ‘crown’ of the mind sciences from Buddhism in the next 20 years, not just in philosophical terms but in the means of progressing spiritually as well.

    Advances in neuroscience used to be looked upon as a curiosity by the general public and I imagine by the Buddhist community as well, but now the pace of progress is truly breathtaking and the long-term implications for the spiritual traditions are immense.

    For instance, the new 10th anniversary special issue of Scientific American: Mind reads like a Star Trek novel but is about research and development happening right now. What happens when ‘brain caps’ (which function exactly like they sound like they do, are inexpensive, rapidly increasing in sophistication, and will be in the doctor’s office in a few years) get way more bang for your buck than traditional practices?

    Wallace may not know what to do with all these questions and challenges to his decades of teaching and practice, and a convenient way of avoiding them is to retreat into a non-materialist framework that is rigid to the point of absurdity. It’s unfortunate, as he is one of the foremost communicators of Buddhism in the modern world. Other teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Shinzen Young are far more openly welcoming of the opportunities presented by neuroscience and its derived technologies, and mKe little if any comment about materialism posing a threat. I hope Wallace changes or at least moderates his tune. We’ll see.

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